A New Look at Hygienic Design

Global circumstances may be forcing a more remote workforce, but what happens when we return to our pre-‘stay at home’ lives? As champions of the built environment, it is up to designers to lead the conversation on daily life-safety and sanitation measures in our most public and frequented places. It is time for us all to reexamine design norms and begin to establish new standards and opportunities to improve hygienic design in the workplace.

Traditionally, hygienic design describes an approach to help prevent contamination within environments that produce and/or research food or medicine. For this discussion, we want to expand its domain to include the modern workplace. We seek to create places that are easy to clean, stay clean, and increase the safety of staff. What solutions can we provide, and what should the A/E community focus on moving forward?

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Adopting WELL AP

One of the main responsibilities of a designer is to promote wellness. In recent years we have seen the emergence of the WELL Building Standard, which combines best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research to configure buildings in support of human health and wellbeing. The ten WELL categories (Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind, and Community) help create environments to fuel our bodies, keep us moving, and encourage healthy habits.

Though not a mandatory requirement, many designers believe we should be viewing the WELL Building Standard as the new normal. Adopting WELL AP best practices gives owners, landlords, and tenants the tools to customize already-drafted policies to suit any corporation. Furthermore, the WELL Building Standard includes specific features that could play key roles in the future of an evolved, post-pandemic workplace, such as its Cleaning Products and Protocol feature. The protocol addresses cleaning products and cleaning practices, especially for high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches, and counters. Another feature, called Community Immunity, addresses flu prevention and access to immunizations in the workplace.


Choosing the Right Materials

Each piece of furniture in an office, lobby, or similar gathering space serves a visual and functional purpose, but the types of fabrics and coatings we use can also directly combat contamination. In fact, many additives to fabrics and other materials that are intended to protect furniture end up being more harmful than helpful over time. They not only can attract more dirt into a focused area, but also emit harmful gasses and chemicals into the air if burned or inhaled. High-performing fabric products that don’t incorporate chemical additives, such as Crypton or natural materials, are better alternatives due to their durability and resiliency. These materials are best used in areas with the highest amount of turnaround, such as break rooms, conference rooms, and lobby spaces.

Leveraging HVAC Best Practices

Workplaces should also invest in proper HVAC system maintenance, as HVAC systems directly contribute to keeping the built environment clean and comfortable. New HVAC technologies such as Demand Control Ventilation, MERV filters, and bipolar ionization can improve wellness while lowering your building's energy burden.

Air handling units utilize both pre and final filters rated to MERV 8 and MERV 13, respectively, which are recommended to be replaced every six months. In sterile lab environments, UV filters are used in addition to MERV filters. Though it may seem like common sense, proper filter choice and maintenance will optimize the removal of large amounts of particulates from the air without expending excess energy.

Humidification through the HVAC system can also help improve building indoor air quality. As is commonly seen in hospitals, dry air is associated with higher infection rates of bacteria and other contaminants. Therefore, controlling moisture levels within a space has a direct impact on one’s physical health. Additionally, different rooms require a different amount of air changes. For example, bathrooms generally require 10 air changes, meaning on average the air is completely changed out every six minutes and replaced with clean air. Lab spaces — especially clean labs — can require more than 50 air changes and the combination of HEPA filters, providing a significantly lower particulate count than MERV filters. Taking proper care of systems and increasing air changes results in cleaner environments.

When it comes to HVAC systems and pressurization, a lot of consideration is involved. For most areas in an office, engineers supply more air into rooms than is returned, causing them to be positively pressurized by about 10%. When buildings have positively pressurized office space near corridors, the air in the office coming from the filtered units pushes out into the corridor, ensuring cleanliness for the people inside the office. Thus, if someone is sick in a corridor, any contaminated air will remain in that corridor. The air is then often transferred to negatively pressurized bathrooms or janitor's closets, where the air is exhausted or removed from the building. Negative pressurization ensures that air is contained within the room itself and not pushed out into adjacent spaces, reducing potential contamination in germ-centric locations.

Improving Sink Ratios

Per the Massachusetts plumbing code, buildings are required to place a toilet for every 50 people in public restrooms. If we take this same ideology and apply it to sinks and cleaning stations across the workplace, we can supply organizations with increased sanitation reminders in other publicly-shared areas. Depending on the number of break rooms or kitchens and the ratio of staff to each, designers have flexibility in their choices to place more than one sink per floor. This becomes relevant when evaluating current circumstances: if one standard-sized sink typically serves an office of around 200 people, you risk inviting a multitude of health issues into a confined space. With only one person being able to use sink at a time, it can result in crowding, sink clogging, dirty dish build-up, and of course, germs.

Other problem areas involve hand soap pumps and paper towel dispensers. Since workplace kitchens are no longer just for washing dishes, designers can lend clarity by working with facilities teams to provide the best products to maintain. These solutions should be doubled within a space to provide both hand soap and dish soap, alongside being properly labeled and directly incorporated into the infrastructure. Creating a standard is not only the easiest way to encourage people to adopt more hygienic habits, but it can also produce a beautiful, intentional design. Handwashing procedures are also addressed under the WELL Building Standard Handwashing feature, further emphasizing the need for such a standard.

Ultimately, without client, owner, and tenant buy-in, normalizing proper hygienic protocols will fall by the wayside. In the upcoming months, it will be more important than ever for designers to serve as educators on how to protect our built environment.